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"Aurora Leigh": Unheard Voice of Victorian Women

Britain during Queen Victoria's reign, which lasted from 1837 to 1901 and is referred to as the Victorian era, is known for being extremely conservative when it came to gender roles. The status of women in the Victorian age was seen as inferior to men: women were not allowed to be outspoken, their voices depended on their husbands’ voices. They had domestic roles, such as cleaning the house and taking care of their children and husbands; meanwhile, men were supposed to work and provide a stable income to their household. Since women were considered physically weaker in comparison to men, they were given domestic duties which would not require excessive physical strength. They did not only suffer oppression related to work, but they were also not permitted to receive a proper education, given that "it was not until 1870 that girl’s education was taken into account by the British authorities. After Education Act was taken into effect in 1870, elementary education for both sexes became compulsory" (Demir, 2015, p.55). However, these regulations against women were starting to become a topic of discussion at the time. Thus, "from the mid-1850s onward, the various wings of the English feminist movement were able to put to profitable use the thriving market for periodicals in Victorian society" (Levine, 1990, p.2). In terms of literature, a number of 19th century writers, such as Jane Austen and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, were concerned about women’s place in society. Therefore, a number of works that were written in the Victorian era, such as Aurora Leigh by poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, contain gender role analysis.


Aurora Leigh is a bildungsroman, which is a genre that focuses on an individual and their spiritual path. It was written in blank verse by Elizabeth Barret Browning and published in 1856. Elizabeth B. Browning's achievement was so notable that American academic and literary scholar Ellen Moers described this work as the epic of the nineteenth-century woman writer and George Elliot, who was a leading female author, read it three times and even stated that this work of art as "no other book gave her 'a deeper sense of communion with a large as well as beautiful mind'" (Stone, 1987, p.3). Furthermore, it still draws a great deal of attention today since the epic novel includes descriptions of society in 19th century England. It was written in first-person narrative and tells the journey of Aurora Leigh, a girl who is born in Italy and raised in England. In her work, Elizabeth B. Browning mainly portrayed the age that she lived in and focused on depicting gender role issues in the 19th century.


Figure 1: “Age of Brass: Or the Triumphs of Women's Rights” (Currier & Ives, 1869).

In the book, Elizabeth B. Browning first draws the reader's attention to gender roles when introducing Aurora's cousin and aunt. Aurora spends most of her time observing her cousin Romney as well as her aunt and makes comments on their attitudes towards her. Narrator of the novel-poem uses a metaphor to describe her aunt as someone who was born in a cage, while Aurora was a wild bird that was brought to her cage, which is likely to be a reference to Victorian women feeling trapped in their homes. The heroine becomes weary of her aunt's expectations of her just because she is a woman. According to her aunt, she should stay calm and have "smooth ordered hair" (Browning, 1856 p.15) in order to be ladylike. This ideal of a woman in the Victorian era was so widespread that men molded women into what they wanted them to be and manipulated traditional women into their ways of thinking. Therefore, Aurora's aunt was influenced by these common ideas and likes "a woman to be womanly" (Browning, 1856, p.17). But Aurora reads books on womanhood and thinks to herself: "If women do not think at all, they may teach thinking" (Browning, 1856, p.1). She mocks the "Victorian image of women through the incongruous associations which assimilate comprehension to a right and juxtapose the verb “prove” to statements as contrary to logic as claiming the possibility, for one who is unable to think, to teach thinking" (Chouiten, n.d. p.6). Thus, her journey of questioning gender roles starts. While she is observing her surroundings and questioning them, she cannot help but think about society’s work expectations for women:


The works of women are symbolical. We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight, Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir, To put on when you’re weary—or a stool To tumble over and vex you... ‘curse that stool!’ (Browning, 1856, p.17).

She implies that even though women work in the industrial world, their work remains symbolical. In the previous quotation, Aurora complains about how women were producing slippers for men to be comfortable—their work was not particularly beneficial to society. In a way, Aurora does not want women to work solely to serve men, she wishes women to work in areas they are interested in, regardless of what men want for them. Her view of being a female poet reveals itself after the reader is introduced to her cousin, Romney Leigh. Aurora and Romney become closer day by day and they have a long discussion about the place of women in literature. Romney thinks being a female writer is improper since even "the dreaming of the stone and bronze brings headaches"(Browning, 1836, p.47) and Aurora thinks that even the aches have gender to him. Having a headache would be too noble for womanhood; instead, "heartache would sound decenter" (Browning, 1836, p.47). Romney opens up more about his typical Victorian mindset, which dictated that a woman with a writing career was improper "in an age which had as poor an opinion of women’s morality as of their brains" (Chouiten, n.d. p.3.).



Figure 2: "A Peasant Girl Knitting" (Breton, 1870).

After a long conversation they cannot come to an agreement because Romney thinks that even if Aurora creates a work of art, she can never be satisfied with "praise which men give women when they judge a book not as mere work, but as mere woman’s work"(Browning, 1836, p.52). The quote is likely to be a commentary on Victorian mentality towards female authors, for a woman should have an interest in areas such as fashion, her children and husband. There was enormous pressure towards female writers in Victorian England. Thus, poets such as Elizabeth B. Browning and Christina Rosetti received support from their family. For instance, the first work that Browning penned privately, The Battle of Marathon, was printed by her father three years after she wrote her poem. Her "entry into the literary field was made possible by [her] precocious, exceptional talent, which was then authorized and enabled by patriarchal authority" (Easley, 2015 p.13). Romney asks Aurora to marry him and offers to help her financially but her desire to be a poet is more dominant, so she rejects him, moves to London, and starts pursuing her dream. She also thinks that he just wants a helpmate, rather than an actual wife whom he can love and spend his time with. From this, the reader can conclude that she rejects becoming heir to the heritage of the Leigh family because she does not want a marriage that is solely based on social status. "According to many feminist critics, Barrett Browning's novel-poem enacts a triumphant reconciliation of 'woman' and 'artist', which necessarily rejects many aspects of the conventional Victorian dichotomy between femininity and artistic power"(Case, 1991, p.18). In this scene, the heroine starts to rebel against the Victorian mindset by becoming an independent woman.


In a major part of the novel-poem, Elizabeth B. Browning criticizes tropes such as fallen woman and the angel in the house. In a poem called The Angel in the House, English poet Coventry Patmore depicts a young, moral woman from her childhood to marriage and everything a man should anticipate from his faithful wife. The title of the poem coined this image of the ideal Victorian housewife (Kühl, 2016, p.1). A woman who does not fit the norms of Victorian society would be classified as a fallen woman. These topics of discourse were often used in literature, especially in novels written by supporters of patriarchy. Yet for the author of the novel-poem "the fallen woman becomes the abased figurehead of a fallen culture" (Auerbach, 1980, p.31). The reader encounters fallenness in Aurora Leigh in the story of Marian Erle, who was supposed to be Romney's wife. She has the characteristics of a so-called fallen woman—she was sold, raped and abused. Aurora's cousin wants to rescue her from her lower class life as well as incidents that could label her as fallen. Even though Marian loves Romney so much that she sees the proposal as a gift, when the reader gets to the end of the novel, they witness how she opposes common Victorian beliefs about what it means to be fallen and rejects him since she will be "for ever clean without a marriage-ring" (Browning, 1886, p.384).

Figure 3: "The Proposal" (Pettie, 1869).

The portrayal of gender roles in Aurora Leigh is striking. The way that both of the female characters reject a proposal demonstrates their perspective towards marriage in Victorian society. Their refusal is rooted in the fact that they want a marriage based on love rather than what society expects from them as women. The representation of Victorian mentality towards women as penned by Elizabeth B. Browning is seen as bold since she was "opting for irony—a 'timid' and didactic form of humour in comparison with other types like nonsense or carnivalesque laughter" (Chouiten, n.d. p.4) in a century that was filled with seriousness and nobleness. Along with the satisfaction the work provides, it also exposes the characteristics and double standards of 19th century England.

Bibliographical References

Auerbach, N. (1980). The rise of the fallen woman. Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 35(1), 29–52. https://doi.org/10.2307/2933478


Browning, B.E. (1886). Aurora Leigh. Retrieved 2021, from

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/56621/56621-h/56621-h.htm

Case, A. (1991). Gender and narration in “Aurora Leigh.” Victorian Poetry, 29(1), 17–32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40002051


Chouiten, L (n.d.). Irony and gender politics in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. https://ojs.ub.gu.se/index.php/njes/article/view/1602/1405


Demir, Ç. (2015). Role of women in education in Victorian England. Researchgate. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/331386030_Role_of_Women_in_Education_in_Victorian_England


Easley, A. (2015). Victorian women writers’ careers. Cambridge University Press.

https://doi.org/10.1017/CCO9781107587823


Kühl, S. (2016). The angel in the house and fallen women: Assigning women their places in Victorian society. https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/documents/angel-house-and-fallen-women-assigning-women-their-places-victorian-society


Levine, P. (1990). "The humanising influences of five o'clock tea": Victorian feminist periodicals. Victorian Studies, 33(2), 293–306. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828360


Stone, M. (1987). Genre subversion and gender inversion: “The Princess” and “Aurora Leigh.” Victorian Poetry, 25(2), 101–127. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40002089


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